Weather Capital of the World
Several thousand well-insulated souls trek to Punxsutawney every February 2nd to watch men in top hats wrangle a groundhog. But if you're busy on that day, or if you just don't feel like standing outside for hours in pre-dawn mid-winter rural Pennsylvania, should you bother to visit Punxsutawney at all?
We say yes. Punxsutawney Phil -- he's the groundhog -- is a full-time presence here. That's a big improvement over the 1980s, the previous time that we visited, when Punxsutawney had little to offer besides a life-size bronze sculpture of Phil on the town square and a giant plywood likeness of him on the south side of town. Those tributes still exist, but Punxsutawney has evidently taken a hard look at the math, and made an effort to broaden its groundhog appeal to more than one day in 365.
Phil's image was everywhere on the non-February 2nd day that we visited. Goofy cartoon fiberglass groundhog statues stood in front of businesses all over town: Phil as a short-order cook, Phil as a dollar bill, Phil as the Statue of Liberty, etc. It's eye-catching, but we've seen too many of these silly-statue civic art fundraiser projects to be really impressed....
Ground Zero for the new-look Punxsutawney is the Weather Discovery Center, promoted as "a place where the science and folklore of weather collide," opened in 2001 in a former downtown post office. Mary Jean Johnston showed us around and recalled the glory days of the mid-1990s, when February 2nd attendance ballooned in the wake of Bill Murray's Groundhog Day. The movie was actually filmed hundreds of miles from here, in a less remote town. Mary Jean tells us that people still stop by, confused, trying to find sites in Punxsutawney that don't exist.
The Weather Discovery Center is mostly for kids, and it works hard to broaden the scope of Punxsutawney's meteorological authority. An eight-foot-tall tube filled with swirling smoke imitates a tornado, a van der Graff generator gives painful lightning-like shocks. A "weather lore" area features a jar of forecasting leeches, which are nowhere near as photogenic as Phil. Mary Jean explains, "when they float to top, it means that the weather will be bad."
The Porter Thermometer Museum donated a Space Shuttle thermometer to the Center, and AccuWeather donated a green screen setup where visitors can stand and watch themselves on camera pretending to be TV weatherpeople. Inside a 12-foot-tall fake tree stump -- Phil's supposed burrow -- is a desk: we open one of its drawers and discover a desiccated groundhog pelt. "That's for kids who've never petted a groundhog," Mary Jean tells us. "I call it 'Phil's extra scarf'."
In the lobby is the National Meteorologist Hall of Fame. It opened in 2007 with only one inductee: Dr. Joel N. Myers, the president of AccuWeather. He is praised here as "the man who transformed weather into an industry in just four decades and for "patenting a system that has all-but made the wind chill factor and heat index obsolete, which suggests that an ability to accurately forecast the weather is not vital to enshrinement in The National Meteorologist Hall of Fame. A new inductee was added in 2008, so eventually this area should display a veritable blizzard of weather giants.
A couple of miles outside of town, at the end of a mile-long line of large paw prints painted onto the road, is Gobbler's Knob. This is the little hollow on a wooded hilltop where Phil makes his annual weather prognostication. The ceremony has been held here every year since 1887, when the first Groundhog Day was staged by immigrant German groundhog hunters (In Germany, hedgehogs predict the weather).
Phil's fake tree stump -- a temporary burrow -- stands at the front of a large stage where the top-hatted "Inner Circle" gathers on February 2nd to haul Phil out into the cold. His prediction rests on his ability to see his shadow, and for some reason Punxsutawney feels that this should happen not at noon, which would be merciful, but just after daybreak, which means that the crowd has to stand out here all night. A bonfire is lit at 3 AM to provide some warmth, but still. We prefer Gobbler's Knob on a balmy summer afternoon, where we have the place to ourselves. The ground where the crowd gathers on Groundhog Day is so worn that grass barely grows on it six months later, and we notice that geocachers have left treasures inside the stump.
And what about Phil? You don't have to visit on February 2nd to see him. Pilgrimages can be made any day of the year now, because Phil lives in "Groundhog Zoo," an oversized terrarium built into the outside wall of the library on the town square. We found him flat on his back, taking a nap. Although we were tempted to tap the glass to wake him, we knew that that would be rude. Phil is, after all, the most famous groundhog on the planet, and no puny human has the pedigree to disturb his happy slumber.